The 39 Steps

George Walkley

iPad app
Production credits: The Story Mechanics
Launch date: 12th April 2013

The Story Mechanics

Faber and Faber

Is it possible to capture the breathless excitement of spy classic The 39 Steps with an interactive app? George WalkleyHead of Digital for the Hachette UK Group finds out.

John Buchan’s The 39 Steps can not only lay claim to being one of the first modern spy thrillers, but one of the most adapted books of all time – at present count, three films, a television series and a West End play have been based on it. In the digital realm, it inspired Charles Cumming’s The 21 Steps, part of Penguin’s award-winning We Tell Stories project. This new adaptation by developer The Story Mechanics has been developed in collaboration with no less than six partners, including Faber,Creative Scotland and the Gaelic Book Trust – perhaps pointing to the sheer complexity and cost of many interactive projects.

From the outset, this is a wonderfully atmospheric, immersive app. Richard Hannay’s world is depicted through background illustrations that perfectly complement John Buchan’s text and a range of maps, newspapers, letters, railway timetables and other material. Expository dialogue and backstory benefit from short, animated films. Music and voice casting are adequate rather than brilliant. The developers have deftly sidestepped the problem of every reader visualizing Hannay differently by presenting the characters as silhuoettes on to which the reader can projecttheir own vision. All in all, there has clearly been a very considerable investment in enhancing the text thoughtfully and faithfully.

Where it falls down a little is on gameplay. The reader is introduced to the very simple user interface early on, and from that point on, it is simply a matter of tapping and swiping through the plot with relatively little variety. Because the app stays very true to the book, the interactivity on offer is somewhat limited: it is really comes down to how much or little of the extra material one wants to explore. But most concerning is that the slow progression of interactions simply doesn’t suit Buchan’s galloping plot: as Hannay escapes from London to the Highlands, pursued on foot and by aeroplane, there was a real lack of pace and tension. It would be interesting to know how many readers who start the app will stay the course.

This is not to say that this is a bad app, or without interest: the ambition and production standards are considerable, and it would be interesting to explore what could be done if the app framework were married to a genuinely interactive storyline.

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